A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects: a review

Angels and Insects comprises two novellas: Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel.

As we know, the Victorian age provides the perfect setting from which to explore themes of freedom and suffocation, as well as moral hypocrisy; it is these which are central to Byatt’s first tale, Morpho Eugenia.

Angels and Insects A S Byatt Victorian fictionShipwrecked naturalist William Adamson is brought under the wing of a wealthy Victorian family and soon falls ‘in lust’ with the enigmatic Eugenia. The sheer beauty and eroticism of Byatt’s prose is magnificent:

‘She sat beside him on the bench, and her presence troubled him. He was inside the atmosphere, or light, or scent she spread, as a boat is inside the drag of a whirlpool, as a bee is caught in the lasso of perfume from the throat of a flower.’

and, later, when they are married:
‘…he felt that their bodies spoke to each other in a kind of fluttering bath of molten gold, a raidiant tent of silky touch and shimmering softness, so that long, tender silences were a natural form of communion during the mundane grey light.’

Just as Adamson has collected specimens of the natural world, Sir Harald Alabaster ensnares him, setting him upon the endless task of classification: an activity requiring meticulous ordering (mirroring the strict order of upper-class Victorian society). This parallel is taken further as we see Adamson studying ant colonies living near the house, each as minutely complex and strictly ordered as the society within the Alabaster home.

Byatt reminds us repeatedly of the contrast between Adamson’s bold past as an explorer of A S Byatt Angels and Insectsthe Amazon, and the suffocating restrictions of polite aristocratic society. However, we come to realise that the family conceals just as many secrets as the darkly exotic jungle. Eugenia, for example, may outwardly (and symbolically) resemble the beautiful butterflies her father enjoys pinning to his boards, but the behaviour we discover of her is closer to the tumbling, devouring, ruthlessness of the insect world.

The pure ‘Alabasters’ are degenerate: stifled, congealing and corrupt, trapped within narrow, inward-looking mindsets. Using more symbolism, Byatt gives us a grotesque description of Harald Alabaster’s hands as ‘ivory-coloured, the skin finely wrinkled everywhere, like the crust on a pool of wax, and under it appreared livid bruises, arthritic nodes, irregular tea-brown stains. The flesh under the horny nails was candlewax-coloured, and bloodless.’

The Conjugial Angel examines the themes of grief and transiency through the Victorian obsession with séances and the next world. Byatt quotes significant portions of Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam, which explores mortality, and decay, inspired by Alfred’s love for Arthur Hallum (who died aged 22 and was engaged to Alfred’s sister, Emily). It is Emily who stands as the central figure in the story, as heartbroken in her loss as Alfred in his.

While the physicality of Emily and Alfred’s desire for Arthur is mostly hinted at, their suffering is vividly echoed in that of Mrs. Papagay. Torn by desire for the physical love of her husband, thought lost at sea, she dreams of ‘male arms around her in the scent of marriage-sheets’.

In both stories, there are dark themes at work, of selfishness, betrayal and deceit (of others and the self) but also an element of the fantastical. Byatt draws us into the stifling world of parlours and manners, but leaves doors open to possibilities: of adventure, of love, and of reignition of self-purpose. Both novellas end with protagonists looking to the future with more optimism, with eyes cast up to the stars.

The Victorianesque language is heavy at times, as dense and complex as Byatt’s themes, but there is beauty here, and such insight. Worth persevering for.

byatt authorA S Byatt‘s novels include the Booker Prize-winning Possession, The Biographer’s Tale and the quartet, The Virgin in the Garden, byatt_childrens_bookStill Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman.

Among her most recent works are The Children’s Book and Ragnarok: The End of the Gods.

Her highly acclaimed collections of short stories include The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Elementals and Little Black Book of Stories.




Haunted by the Past: a review of Jonathan Kemp’s ‘Ghosting’


How do we live with the spectres of the past: lost loves, lost children, years wasted in bitterness and regret? And, in living with lament, do we become ghosts ourselves?


This is a tale of how we haunt ourselves, how the torment of the past can desiccate us. It’s also a tale of unlocking self-imposed shackles.


Grace’s long-dead husband, Pete, has always been the dark shadow at her side, captured Jonathan Kemp ghosting revieweternally in her memories of his initial love for her, and of his physical and emotional abuse; now, she believes he’s reappeared in the flesh.


Looking back, to four decades earlier, we hear: ‘…with each blow, her love for him diminished. She would say she loved him but she felt it less and less.’


Jonathan Kemp has a talent for evoking a moment through a single image. Grace recalls: ‘pegging out their bedsheets for the first time and feeling as if she was pitching a flag on the summit of her happiness; declaring her joy to the world.’ He shows us not only a husband hated, but adored, and therein lies a tangled web.


There are memories too of a teenage daughter, who was lost emotionally to Grace long before her fatal drug overdose. Jonathan Kemp shows us the power of grief to place us out of joint with the world, disoriented, a form of madness, memories clanging a jarring bell.


Grace is adrift, failing to cope with the pain of the past. Her strategy of denial and containment has left her brittle. She’s barely breathing when we meet first meet her: a ghost of the self she once was.


Her cage is uniquely her own, but we all have our cages, inhabited by lovers long-ago-kissed, friends discarded, family members lost to us. They are the patterns woven into our personal tapestry, folded and put away, for what we avoid looking at we think we may forget.


Grace thinks: ‘What happens to all the pain you refuse to feel? Does the body store it perhaps, for a future date?’


I defy your heart not to ache for Grace and, in reading of her grief, to ache for yourself, for we are all haunted by the past, and by the transience of this life.


As Grace ponders: ‘Life happened. Only I feel like it happened without me, and I want it back so I can do it differently.’


As in The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Grace sees a woman crawling through the wall, trying to escape: a metaphor for her own effort to be free of what constrains her.


Kemp leads us through the female mind with insight, dark humour picking its way through dark themes. Grace wonders at what point her frustration will rob her of self-control. She recalls a friend of her mother’s who would carry a china saucer wrapped in a tea towel in her handbag, alongside a small hammer, ready for extraction in emergencies, to allow her to vent her anger. It must ‘go’ somewhere, or she’ll descend into madness, so she fears.


She pictures her thoughts as fishes, swimming inside the bowl of her skull; pictures herself ‘casting a line to catch them.’


At last, the mysterious apparition turns out to be Luke, whose youthful vitality and daring helps bring Grace back to life. While she locks her torment away, Luke uses performance art to purge his. Through their growing friendship, she realises that only she can release herself from grief’s burden.


Grace is: ‘becoming herself, and daily casting aside that fictitious self that people assume like a garment in which to appear before the world.’


ghosting jonathan kemp  reviewShe accepts life’s chaos, knowing ‘with a knowledge that somehow sets her free, all there is to know about life, which, nothing.’


The tale ends with Grace leaving behind her past, dropping her phone into the bin. She no longer feels the need for safe shelter. She’s ready to step into her future.


Grace notes, on visiting an art exhibition, that art is ‘a way of seeing’ and ‘a process’, ‘more than a product to be sold’. Some stories are told to enlighten us, to shine a small flame in the darkness of our haphazard ramblings, to show us the way. Kemp’s story is one such, urging us to recognise the pain we carry with us and to set it free. The pages are ‘a product to be sold’ but they are also a personal message, of encouragement to heal, and step into our own tomorrows.


Jonathan Kemp 26 Ghosting London Triptych

Jonathan Kemp teaches creative writing and comparative literature at Birkbeck College, London. His first novel, London Triptych won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Polari Prize and the Green Carnation Prize. He is also the author of a collection of short stories, 26.


Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 11.20.45“There is a deceptively relaxed quality to TWENTYSIXKemp’s writing that is disarming, bewitching and, to be honest, more than a little sexy… As a writer, Jonathan is somewhat akin to the Pied Piper if only because there is something magical you cannot help but follow.”
– Christopher Bryant, Polari Magazine.